Yesterday morning, I started off 2013 in the best way possible — yoga! Along with twenty people or so, I sweated, stretched, and backbended my way into the new year. Throughout the class, the teacher encouraged us to think about the upcoming year and what we’d like to manifest in our yoga practices. He provided several suggestions, like learning to jump from Down Dog into Navasana, or mastering handstands away from the wall. For a lot of yogis, these are great goals; it’s fun to learn difficult asanas and advanced transitions, and doing so can build confidence as well as strength.
I certainly have several asana-centered goals for myself in 2013. But my real New Year’s Resolution — if I can call it that — is to move beyond asana. I’ve been practicing yoga for more than ten years now, and I will be the first to admit that I have a very lopsided yoga practice. The style of yoga I do, vinaysa flow, stems from the Ashtanga tradition. This “eight-limbed” system of yoga is attributed to Patanjali, and is outlined in Patanjali’s Sutras, which dates back to the 2nd century BCE, but has been updated and expanded through the modern era by Krishnamacharya, Pattabi Jois, and others.
The physical postures we do in a typical yoga class today comprise just one “limb” of Ashtanga, and it is certainly not the most important one at that. In fact, asana is really supposed to be preparation for the more serious/advanced aspects of yoga. But most yoga practitioners today, including myself, all but ignore the other areas of yoga. Sure, we may give some lip service to meditation or pranayama, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of our focus is really on asana.
This year, I’d like to move beyond asana and start to develop a more complete yoga practice. And I’d like to encourage other yogis to consider doing the same. Regardless of what type of yoga you do, there is certainly a lot more to learn and practice than just the physical postures. Even if you happen to practice a style of yoga that has been sanitized, so to speak, of all religious and quasi-religious elements, there’s still the possibility of going beyond asana.
Here, in no particular order, I present three different aspects of yoga that a person can cultivate and practice in addition to asana. My presentation is at the most basic level, as I don’t want to delve into an esoteric discussion of yoga philosophy. The point here is just to put the seed of an idea or possibility out there.
MEDITATION. “Yoga postures are preparation for seated meditation.” You hear this over and over again in yoga classes, but then the teacher proceeds to teach an hour and a half of asana, with little to no attention paid to meditation. Without a doubt, a deep physical practice can provide mental, emotional, and even spiritual benefits. These benefits, however, are almost an unintended side effect of the asana practice. In contrast, a regular meditation practice focuses entirely and directly on the internal, so the positive effects tend to be deeper and more lasting than the temporary high so many of us seek from a kick-ass yoga class.
PRANAYAMA. Breathing is essential to yoga because breathing is essential to life. If you stopped breathing, you would literally die! By exploring and strengthening the power of our breath, we can build upon a strong asana practice. Most of us are actually well-versed already in Pranayama, since we engage Ujjayi breath in our asana practice. But there’s a lot more to Pranayama than this “victory breath.” One of my favorite exercises is Kapalabhati, sometimes called Breath of Fire. I also enjoy the challenging Alternate Nostril Breathing. These exercises can be combined with asana, but they are most powerful when done just prior to seated meditation.
YAMAS & NIYAMAS. If yoga is to be more than just another form of exercise, then it needs to inform our ideas about how and why we live. That doesn’t mean we should all abandon our material possessions and live in the woods as austere yogis. Nor does it mean that we need to become religious fanatics. Living a truly yogic life (as opposed to living a life that includes some yoga classes) is really just about adopting a certain orientation towards the world and towards yourself. The Yamas & Niyamas of yoga constitute one articulation of social and personal ethics. If you read through them, they actually consist of universal, recognizable ethical principles–e.g., don’t harm others, don’t lie, don’t steal. As a modern-day yogis, however, it’s easy to lose our ethical bearings. Yoga is often sold as a self-indulgent spa package, where the objective is to feel good and escape stress and responsibilities. But yoga has the potential to do more than just make us feel good. It can begin to alter our values, which in turn can shift our commitments and our ideas about what is good and worthwhile in life.
Of course, it’s difficult to incorporate any of these elements into one’s yoga practice if teachers do not include these things in their classes. For me, I will probably pursue meditation, Pranayma, and yoga philosophy/ethics mostly outside the yoga studio. This is yet another reason why I think it’s important to cultivate a home practice. Self practice is about a lot more than just saving yourself some time and money. Self practice is proactive practice, and, as such, it requires a yoga student to think more intently about everything, instead of just plugging into the instructions and program set out by a teacher. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be posting more about self-practice, with an eye towards building a comprehensive home practice that goes beyond asana.